Understanding Organic Foods & Knowing When to Buy Them

Organic foods on a table

Organic foods are big business in the U.S.

The Organic Trade Association in April reported that sales of organic foods in the U.S. in 2014 soared to $35.9 billion — an 11.3 percent jump from the previous year and almost 5 percent of the total food market.

As the organic food sector expands, more varieties of organic foods will start making it to local grocers.

The American Cancer Society says additives in non-organic foods are not known to directly cause cancer, but they may increase the risk of developing cancer by acting as hormone-like substances in the body.

Many studies show that plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables lower our risk for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and many other diseases. Plant-based organic diets often are recommended for patients with cancer.

What’s the Difference Between Organic Foods and Non-Organic Foods?

In order for food to display the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic seal, farmers and producers must verify that:

  • Irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides and genetically modified organisms were not used.
  • Producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100 percent organic feed and provided animals with access to the outdoors.
  • The product has 95 percent or more certified organic content. If the label claims it was made with specified organic ingredients, you can be sure those specific ingredients are certified organic.

Organic foods are labeled in different ways, including:

  • 100 Percent Organic: These agricultural products only contain ingredients that are certified organic, including any processing aids.
  • Organic: These products must contain no less than 95 percent certified organic ingredients. The remaining five percent of ingredients must be organically produced, unless commercially unavailable or allowed on the National List (a list of allowed and banned substances by the USDA).
  • “Made With” Organic: These multi-ingredient agricultural products contain at least 70 percent certified organic ingredients (may not include the organic seal anywhere on the product).

Why Is Organic Food So Popular?

Organic food is popular because people are drawn to its many healthy, and consumer- and animal-friendly processes.

For example, those who produce organic foods use better farming practices that expose farmers and their crops to less pesticides. Producers also demonstrate better quality control and stricter standards of production than conventional food producers.

These foods usually employ a reduction in pollutants and conserve water and soil. Organic food producers also follow stricter standards for chemicals in processed foods than non-organic.

Are There Concerns About Organic Food?

For many consumers, the biggest drawback to organic food is the cost.

Organic foods can cost up to three times as much as conventional foods. These costs stem from limited supplies and stricter production, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Also, harvesting small quantities is more costly than conventional produce.

Marketing and distributing organic foods is also costlier than conventional foods because of small volumes.

Organic produce also tends to spoil faster because it is not coated with waxes or pumped with preservatives that increase its shelf life. Consumer Reports recently released findings from an ongoing, 12-year study on the amount of pesticide residue found on fruits and vegetables.

Researchers found certain conventional foods contained high levels of residue and recommend these should be purchased as organic. These foods include:

  • Peaches
  • Carrots
  • Strawberries
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Green beans
  • Apples (U.S.)
  • Tangerines
  • Nectarines
  • Cranberries
  • Hot peppers
  • Sweet potatoes

Low-risk foods showed less pesticide residue and could be purchased as conventional. These foods include:

  • Raspberries
  • Blueberries
  • Broccoli (U.S./Mexico)
  • Oranges (no rind)
  • Lettuce
  • Onions
  • Red/green grapes
  • Apples (New Zealand)
  • Watermelons (Mexico/U.S.)
  • Bananas
  • Cherries

The Bottom Line About Organic Foods

Most of us could definitely benefit from increasing our daily intake of plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables.

For those comfortable eating conventional fruits and veggies, remember their benefits far outweigh the potential risks associated with the pesticides on those foods.

A few helpful hints include:

  • Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, not just a select few. By doing this, you are also varying the sources of your nutrients as well as the potential pesticide exposure.
  • Look for local farms where you can pick your own produce. Often, these smaller farms use fewer chemicals in their production, and it’s a lot more fun than going to your supermarket.
  • Organic frozen fruits and vegetables are often cheaper and, of course, can be kept longer than their fresh counterparts. Buy in bulk when they go on sale.
  • Wash and scrub all fruits and vegetables vigorously. Don’t waste your time buying special food-cleaning products. Studies show none are found to be more effective than using clean cold water.
  1. Schroeder, E. (2015, April 4). Costco’s organic food sales approach $3 billion. Retrieved from http://www.foodbusinessnews.net/articles/news_home/Food-Service-Retail/2015/04/Costcos_organic_food_sales_app.aspx?ID={06DE12C5-9936-482C-A129-3229D56FFA37}
  2. Organic Trade Association. (n.d.) Market Analysis. Retrieved from https://ota.com/what-ota-does/market-analysis
  3. The University of Maine. (2014) Best Ways to Wash Fruits and Vegetables. Retrieved from http://umaine.edu/publications/4336e/

Tejal Parekh is a registered and licensed dietitian in Florida with a master’s in nutrition and dietetics from Georgia State University. She realized her passion more than 10 years ago when she started working with cancer patients. Tejal also is one of the first dietitians in Florida to be board-certified as a specialist in oncology nutrition.

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